The Berlin life goes somewhat underreported, it seems, at least as far as mainstream, non-German media on both sides of the pond is concerned. What makes it, then, so special? In this case, clichés are generally true. There is the overall cost of living, for one thing, which by any standard is still much lower here than in most occidental metropolises. Yet the over-abundent cultural offer one experiences in this town definitely rivals that of, say, Paris, London, or even (I dare write it) New York. The art scene, the theater, the music – the opera. Some of it is excellent, some of it is questionable, some of it is just anachronic and not entirely defendable, but it’s all part of the Berlin fabric. There is a sense of freedom, an understated but effervescent collective state of mind, a youthfulness, a license to experiment and fail that appeal to artists and intellectuals from all around the world at least as much as cheap rent does. This amounts to a form of utopia which certainly doesn’t exist anymore in any of those other cities, which are gentrifying by the day. As far as opera and, generally speaking, vocal music is concerned, this is both a blessing and a curse. There is more to see and hear than what even the most devoted aficionado could possibly absorb at once without jeopardizing one’s physical health; tickets are affordable, ensembles are strong, repertoire is relatively varied. Still, Berlin for all its glory cannot compete with, say, the much richer Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. The number of expensive new productions is limited. Casts tend to be asembled a bit late. Fees being lower, stars are the exception rather than the norm (and are consequently more prone to cancellation).

The first few days of May offered a glimpse of what the system can produce at its considerable best:

May 1: Don Carlo, Staatsoper. René Pape sings his signature role of King Philip, surrounded by a fine cast (Amanda Echalaz, Nadia Kratseva, Fabio Sartori, Andreas Bauer, Alfredo Daza). The spine-chilling auto-da-fé scene, complete with naked supers hanged by their feet, is the highlight of Philipp Himmelmann’s mostly excellent staging.

May 4: Cecilia Bartoli in her yearly local appearance. All-Händel program includes a few unexpected bits from Alcina, Teseo, Amadigi. Orchestral excerpts are masterfully delivered by the Orchestra La Scintilla from Zürich. Our diva glitters but hardly surprises, yet her star power is unquestionable. The sweet-voiced Sunhae Im  and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin offer a bouquet of Rameau, Telemann and Clérambault at the Kammermusiksaal next door.

May 6: Renée Fleming, Thomas Hampson, Christian Thielemann and the Berliner Philharmoniker team up for an evening of Richard Strauss (orchestral songs plus excerpts from Arabella). Fleming sounds glorious and inspired throughout. The partnership with Thielemann is  bearing some fruits.

May 7: Edita Gruberova takes the Schiller Theater by storm. “Bel canto extravaganza” sounds like a gross understatement: Lucrezia, Amina, Lucia, Elvira, Elisabetta – everyone’s at the party, except Norma. I’m boarding a train to Hamburg when Linda and Adele make a late arrival.

*****

True, neither Fleming, Hampson nor Bartoli are likely to appear in a local stage production at this point in their respective careers. But as long as Berlin is Berlin (fortunately I was in town that week), that’s pretty much as good as it gets.

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Sokolov Superstar

February 24, 2011

Hardly a household name in the Western hemisphere, the Russian Grigory Sokolov enjoys in this town what amounts to superstar status: significant media attention, a large and devoted fanbase, and the assurance that this faithful following will show up in droves at the box office, as they did this past week at the Philharmonie for one of the master pianist’s exceedingly seldom outings. Sokolov favors recitals over any other form of musical activity, avoiding orchestras with the same indifference as he does microphones, a niche he shares with few of his colleagues, past and present. Martha Argerich, for one, is famous for her now decades-long recital shyness, while Glenn Gould‘s exclusive affair with the recording studio largely contributed to the making of his own legend. The essence of Sokolov’s magic, on the contrary, has to be experienced live, the fugitive and unreplicable nature of which enhances the sense of privilege avid concertgoers thrive on. In this particular case, the audience’s excitement and gratitude also points to Berlin’s complex recent and not-so-recent history: in the days when tensions between the American giant and the Soviet empire impacted the global cultural landscape in ways hard to conceive today, the city was a haven for Russian artists, the only metropolis they could access with relative ease given its unique position both “behind” and “beyond” the Iron Curtain.

There was some of that, without a doubt, in the rousing welcome he received yesterday night, which stood as much as recognition of his unwavering loyalty to the Berlin public as it did as a sign of renewed (high) expectations. Certainly these were met, if not exceeded. The Philharmonie is hardly the most intimate setting one can imagine for a Klavierabend of Bach and Schumann, a touch of dryness unfortunately creeping in its less congenial than customary acoustics, obviously not developed with an empty stage in mind. Yet the dimmed lights and the pianist’s almost furtive stage demeanour commanded inner concentration, paving the way for the ensuing collective awe, of which there was no shortage. Sokolov’s is an imposing, muscular, typically Russian technique, more in the vein of Gilels than Horowitz, for which Bach and Schumann might have sounded like oddly-paired dance partners on a short concert program. His penetrating reading of the latter’s intricately original contrapunctual writing (here as in the Humoreske Op. 20 and the four Klavierstücke, Op. 32) drew a clear line between the two. Though not devoid of gravity, his interpretation lacked only a dose of the kind of ineffable romantic ecstasy this writer expects to hear in such music, prerequisites for which would be a slightly lighter, more indulgingly coloristic approach and a freer handling of purely formal precepts, both seemingly out-of-place in this context. From an interpretive standpoint, whether the performer should try to tame Schumann’s eccentricities, or else let them become the food of visionary inspiration – the old quarrel of the composer’s own bi-polar alter-ego, Florestan and Eusebius – is a question for the ages. Sokolov’s, on this occasion, sided with the poised and measured Eusebius. Consequently, his rendition of the Italian Concerto, BWV 971 and the Overture in the French Style, BWV 831, at once stylistically accurate and remarkably self-effaced, proved revelatory in at least one aspect: played with such integrity and insight, the question of whether Bach’s keyboard music should be performed on the modern piano or confined to the harpsichord becomes irrelevant. Once he had gotten through the official program, the pianist launched into a series of encores, mostly Russian miniatures, all greeted with frenetic cheering and applause. It almost felt like Carnegie Hall after a recital of Evgueny Kissin.

Endlich in Berlin zurück!

September 3, 2010

It is good to be home. To greet the city properly, I treated myself to a three-hour stint at the Alte Nationalgalerie yesterday – their collection of Neoclassical and Romantic German paintings, prominent among which are the works of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Caspar David Friedrich and Arnold Böcklin, to name but a few,  remains a source of endless fascination to me. On this visit, I discovered some of the incredibly realistic still-lifes of Johann Wilhelm Preyer.

Native or adopted Berliners who like me missed the Lange Nacht der Museen on August 28 can console themselves: admission to most of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin is free starting four hours before closing on Thursdays. Admission to the Deutsche Guggenheim on Unter den Linden is free on Mondays.